Front Page Titles (by Subject) 8.: Population 1825 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
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8.: Population 1825 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I, ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
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MS, Mill-Taylor Collection, II/1/2 (first part); typescript carbon copy, from Ney MacMinn headed (in ink) “[Population]” (second part). MS of the latter formerly in possession of Harold J. Laski, who edited it with No. 9 below as “Two Speeches on Population by John Stuart Mill,” Journal of Adult Education, IV (Oct. 1929), 38-48. Assigned on internal evidence to the first of the debates between the Utilitarians and the Owenites at the latter’s Co-operative Society in 1825. Because the manuscript of the second part has not been located, the typescript and printed versions have been collated.
i scarcely expected, Sir, when I entered the room on the last evening of discussion, that any thing could have added to my persuasion of the truth of the principle of population. That principle appeared to me to rest upon evidence so clear and so incontrovertible, that to understand it, is to assent to it, and to assent to it once is to assent to it for ever: I flattered myself, that I understood it completely; I assented to it without any reservation; and I could not have believed that any discussion could have rendered my comprehension of it more clear, or my assent to it more confident and undoubting. Sir, that which I did not conceive to be possible has actually come to pass: I have been strengthened in my opinions by the discussion which they have undergone. It is not that any new evidence has been brought forward in their support, or that I have heard any thing advanced in their favour of which I was not previously aware. I knew all which could be said on our side of the question; but I knew not, nor was it possible to foresee, how little could be said on the other. Gratifying as it was, Sir, to hear my own opinions so eloquently and powerfully advocated as they were on the former evening by my Honourable friend,1 yet even this was not half so gratifying as to find that those who attempted to answer him, not only did not refute his arguments, but did not venture even to look them in the face.
It was objected to my Honourable friend on the former evening that he did not understand Mr. Owen’s system.2 That objection will not apply to me. I flatter myself that I do understand Mr. Owen’s system; if not in its details yet in its general principles. Should I unintentionally commit any misstatements with respect to the system, I hope that some of the gentlemen on the other side will do me the favour to set me right. But I must say that it appears to me a very suspicious circumstance attaching to Mr. Owen’s system, that whenever we bring forward any arguments against the principle of that system, they constantly meet us with the assertion, that we do not understand the system; but at the same time, they do not tell us in what respect we have misconceived the system, in order that we may misconceive it no longer.3
The charge which was brought against my Honourable friend, of not understanding Mr. Owen’s system, was in the first place untrue, and if true, it was irrelevant. Untrue, because notwithstanding the vehemence with which Mr. Owen’s friends have reiterated the charge, they have as yet failed of shewing any one instance, in which he has misrepresented the system. Irrelevant, because if it were ever so true, that my Honourable friend does not understand Mr. Owen’s system, we are not now discussing Mr. Owen’s system, but the principle of population: and in any other assembly than this, the principle of population might have been discussed without adverting to Mr. Owen’s system at all. It is true that if we should come to the conclusion that no system which does not provide a check to population can possibly be of any permanent utility, and if Mr. Owen’s system does not provide a check to population, Mr. Owen’s system must be as inefficient as the rest. But this proposition, however closely it may follow as a corollary from the principle of population, surely is not a part of the principle; still less is the truth of the principle of population itself in any degree dependant upon the goodness or badness of Mr. Owen’s system. The principle of population would have been just the same, though Mr. Owen and his system, had never been heard of. First settle the general principle, and then there can be no difficulty in applying it to the particular case. If the principle of population can be shewn to be a necessary consequence of the immutable laws of nature, it follows of course that neither Mr. Owen nor any other person, not commissioned to work miracles, can have it in his power to set these laws aside.
I wish, Sir, to make this subject as clear as possible: and when the clearness of the subject has been impaired, and the difficulty of coming to an agreement, a difficulty already so great, has been still afarthera enhanced by the different meanings which different speakers have chosen to attach to a word, I am willing to give up that word, and to sacrifice whatever advantage my case might have derived from its employment, rather than that any unnecessary obstacle should stand in the way of a clear understanding of the subject. In the present discussion it appears to me, that some such confusion as I have described has arisen from the application of the word capital: a word which almost all the speakers have employed, and which scarcely any two of them seem to have understood in the same sense. One gentleman has confounded capital with money, and insisted that production could go on without capital, because it would go on if we had leather money instead of gold and silver: which is certainly true, but nothing at all to the purpose. Another gentlemen understands capital to mean nothing more than the materials and the instruments of production. Another extends it a little wider, and includes under it the whole of the surplus which remains after the immediate wants of the labourer have been supplied: and others, of whom I am one, include under the word capital, all that portion of the produce which is in any shape whatever applied to the purpose of reproduction: whether as buildings, implements, materials, or in paying or feeding the labourers. A word which has so many significations is unfit for philosophical discussion, and I shall discard, not only the name, but the very idea which it implies. In doing this, I wish it to be understood how great is the concession which I make. The whole of the arguments of Mr. Owen’s friends are founded upon the assertion, that subsistence will follow mouths.4 Now, granting this, I might fairly reply, that subsistence must precede mouths. Obvious and important as this proposition is, I will consent to waive it. I will consent to argue, as if, in order to set the labourers to work, it were not necessary to have accumulated a previous supply of implements, buildings, seed and material together with food sufficient to maintain the labourers, at least till the first year’s harvest could be gathered in. I will consent to let the controversy rest upon this single question, whether subsistence would follow mouths.
Now, Sir, I admit that subsistence would follow mouths; that every addition to the mouths would occasion an addition to the subsistence, but I maintain that the addition to the subsistence would be not by any means proportional to the addition to the mouths; I maintain that there would be a much greater addition to the mouths than there would be to the subsistence, and consequently that the condition of the whole would be deteriorated. I rest this assertion, upon the immutable laws prescribed by nature with regard to the productive powers of the soil.
It is a well known fact that after a piece of land has been cultivated up to a certain point, any further increase of cultivation must be attended with a considerable diminution of return. If the labour of ten men on the soil, produce a return of ten bushels, the labour of a second ten men, superadded to the former ten, will not produce so much as ten bushels, and the twenty together will not be able to produce so much as twenty bushels, probably not more than seventeen or eighteen. By increasing the labour you increase the return, but not in the same proportion. By doubling the labour, you do not double the return. It is perfectly clear, therefore, that if the first ten labourers had not more than enough to eat, when they had ten bushels to themselves, the twenty will not have a sufficiency, when they have only seventeen or eighteen bushels among them. If another ten labourers be added to the population, the return to their labour will be still less: probably not more than five or six bushels. An addition of ten to the population causes an addition of five or six only, to the production; there will now be thirty labourers and they will only have twenty four bushels among them: they will therefore be still worse off than before.
This is the death blow to the gainsayers of the principle of population. They all say, as so many persons said in this room that subsistence would follow population. I answer—so it would; but as soon as that point of cultivation was attained, at which any further application of labour to the soil is attended with a diminution of return, subsistence would follow population it is true, but it would follow at a rate which is much slower, and which is every day growing still slower than before; it would follow at a limping, halting pace, and would be continually falling more and more behind.
What that point is, it is impossible exactly to say, but that there is proof positive that not in this country alone, but in almost all the countries of the old Continent, it has been long since attained. The proof is that in all these countries it has been found necessary to cultivate the barren soils. Land as is well known, is of various degrees of fertility. In this country land even of the ninth and tenth degree of fertility bhasb long since been taken into cultivation. But it is demonstratively certain not only that we should never have cultivated the ninth and tenth, but that we should not even have cultivated the second quality of land, if we could have gone on applying our labour to the land of the highest quality, without any diminution of return as at first. If the labour of ten men on the best land produces ten bushels, and the labour of ten men on the second best can produce only nine, so long as every additional ten men could continue on the best land to produce ten additional bushels, it could never be the interest of anybody to employ them upon the second best, and produce no more than nine. The farmer who had, as almost all farmers have, land of all degrees of fertility on his farm would employ all his labourers in adding to the productiveness of the best land and would leave all the other land untouched. But does this happen? We find on the contrary that the inferior lands are cultivated; and some lands are in cultivation, which with a given quantity of labour do not yield probably one tenth part as much as the best land of all. And how, I once more ask,—how can this be accounted for? Why should the farmer employ any of his labourers on the inferior lands, if he could employ them to greater advantage on the better qualities? He can have no reason but one: and that one is satisfactory. The better sort of lands are now cultivated up to so high a point that any additional labour employed upon them would not now yield a greater return than it does upon the very worst lands which are at present in cultivation.
This great truth—the limited fertility of the soil—was the grand proposition of my Honourable friend’s speech: it was the basis, on which his whole argument was founded. Most extraordinary it is, that not one of those who answered him condescended to notice this fundamental principle, but went on assuming that every addition to population, would occasion an equal addition to the produce, just as if the contrary had never been demonstrated. Even now, when the proposition has been separated from the various other propositions which my Honourable friend was under the necessity of mixing up with it, and held up naked to the view of this assembly—I cannot expect that a truth so new to most of those who are present, should be acceded to at once. It will doubtless be objected, that a very small proportion of the population can and does produce food for the whole; and that the period when there shall be any danger of a deficiency of subsistence, if indeed it can arrive at all, is at any rate far distant.
Let us give to this objection as much as it is worth. Let us suppose that a community is established, on the principle of Mr. Owen.5 A gentleman on the other side has affirmed that in his native county one man can produce food sufficient for the support of five.6 Let us suppose then that in this community, one fifth of the population is employed in the production of food, and the remaining four fifths in the production of clothing, of lodging, and the other necessaries and conveniences of life, in the practice of medicine, in the cultivation of knowledge and in the government of the community, for some sort of government I presume would be needed even under Mr. Owen’s system. I shall suppose also that food sufficient for the whole community could at first be raised, without having recourse to any but the very best quality of land, and without being reduced to the necessity of applying labour even to the best land with a diminution of return. This, it is to be observed, is granting much more to the system than the warmest of the panegyrizers have as yet ventured to claim. No one has as yet affirmed that under Mr. Owen’s system food for the whole community could be raised on the very best land. When we consider how very limited in extent in this and most other countries land of the highest quality is, and how small a proportion it bears in this country, not only to the whole land of the country, but even to the whole of the land which is in cultivation, it is obvious that I am granting infinitely more than the boldest of my antagonists would dare to ask. Yet I do grant it, because I have no occasion to deny it; false though it be, my argument would be equally good if it were true. Let us see, then, what would be the consequence.
Population would increase, additional mouths and additional hands would be brought into play; these additional hands, if applied to the best soils, would not produce a proportional increase of return. They must either be applied to inferior soils, or to a higher cultivation of the best; in either case they would be attended with an additional, but not proportionate addition to the return. If one man could previously raise food for five, one man, probably could now raise food for no more than four. As it is one of Mr. Owen’s rules that no other article shall be produced, until the community is supplied with all the food which it requires,7 a greater proportion than before must betake themselves to the production of food. One fifth of the population was formerly sufficient to produce subsistence for the whole. One fourth would now be requisite. Three fourths only, instead of four fifths would remain to supply the other wants of the community. These wants therefore could not be so well supplied as before. If the community was not previously better clothed, better lodged, better attended when sick, and better governed than enough, they could not now be well enough clothed, well enough lodged, well enough attended nor well enough governed.
If population went on, the time would speedily come when one man would be unable to produce more food than enough for three. One third of the population must now be employed in raising food; and two thirds only would remain for other purposes. With every increase in population, the proportion employed in raising food must be increased; it would rise from one third to ½, from ½ to ⅔, ¾, ⅚; and from the properties of the soil the progression would be very rapid; until at length the labour of each man applied to the soil, would not be able to produce more than enough for the subsistence of one. Then must the whole of the population apply themselves to the production of food. There would be no clothes, no houses, no furniture. There would be no physicians nor legislators. There would be nothing for elegance, nothing for ease and nothing for pleasure; mankind would be reduced to the level of a very low kind of canimal,c having just two functions, that of raising, and that of consuming food. After population had reached this point, if it were still to increase, the surplus, it is evident, could not be supported. There would then not even be enough food. Starvation must overspread the community, until the destruction of the surplus population had reduced it again to that number for which food can be provided, and food alone.
Let it not be objected that this period is far distant. The consummation indeed, it is to be hoped, is far distant. The dreadful end of the series might be long delayed, though not so long as may be supposed. But though the end of the series may be distant, the series itself has long since commenced. That progressive deterioration which if not checked must end in destruction, commenced from the moment when it became necessary to cultivate any but the finest soils. The cultivation even of the second best land, demonstratively proved that additional labour could not be applied to the best land without a diminution of return. From that moment, every extension of cultivation drew and must draw a greater and greater proportion of the labourers to the production of food, and must leave a smaller proportion to the production of everything else. Let Mr. Owen’s system be ever so admirable; let his arrangements for the employment of labour be ever so efficacious: it would nevertheless be true that unless the whole of the food requisite for the nourishment of the community could be raised, not only without cultivating any but the very best soil, but without expending more than a very small quantity of labour even upon the best soil itself, every increase of population must continually draw a greater and greater proportion of the labourers to agriculture, leaving a less and less proportion for all other pursuits, and consequently deteriorating the condition of all. With every extension of cultivation, after the inferior lands come under tillage, all must have less food, or less something else.
There is only one case in which this would not be strictly true. Although there would every day be a less and less proportion of the population, to be spared for the production of the comforts and conveniences of life, it is possible that by improvements in machinery and more extended applications of the principle of the division of labour, this smaller proportion might be able to produce enough for all. That this principle has been powerfully called into action in this country there can be no doubt; and it is the only cause why the increase of our population was not stopped centuries ago by starvation and misery. But as the increase of population is constantly going on; as the proportion of labourers which can be spared from the production of food is constantly diminishing; there must likewise be a constant succession of improvements in production and we shall be as ill off as before. But a constant succession of improvements in production is what we cannot look for under any circumstances, and least of all under Mr. Owen’s system, where the benefits of the invention are to be shared with a hundred or a thousand others, and the labour is for the inventor alone. That constant succession of improvements which would be improbable even when the inventor is permitted for a time to enjoy the entire fruits of his invention may be pronounced impossible where he can have but a hundredth or thousandth part.
From the moment then when additional labour can no longer be applied to the best land with the same return as at first—a moment indicated by the commencement of tillage on the inferior lands, the dfartherd increase of population must deteriorate the condition of all, unless accompanied by a constant succession of improvements in production. And even if it be so accompanied: if for every man who comes into the world, a new invention be made, which enables that man to add as much to the produce as he does to the mouths which are to consume it: no one to be sure is worse off, but give us the invention without the additional man, and all will be better off. In every case, therefore, after inferior land begins to be tilled, for every increase of population a portion of the physical comfort of the people is sacrificed; or at any rate postponed to something else. Up to a certain point it is desirable that it should be postponed to something else. A certain density of population is absolutely necessary for the complete enjoyment of the benefits of the social union. Up to that point, it is desirable that population should increase, even though it did take something from the physical comfort of each. But beyond that point every increase of population, has the effect of rendering the condition of each less favourable than it would otherwise be; beyond that point, therefore, whether under Mr. Owen’s system or any other system, an increase of population is not desirable.
I should like to know, Sir, what the gentlemen on the other side will say in answer to this. One thing I hope will now be very clearly understood. That unless they deny that original property of the soil, by which an increased application of labour is attended with a diminished rate of return, all that they can say is nothing to the purpose. They may endeavour indeed to evade this principle—they may say that by the application of labour, the most barren land may be made equal to the most fertile, and this I know they will say; for this reason, because they can say nothing else; but I have to request that when they do say it, all who hear me will have the answer ready: It is this: You may fertilise the most barren land—you may increase its produce tenfold: but it must be by increasing the number of your labourers a hundredfold. A gentleman declared on the former evening that if you had not twenty times the produce, it is only because you have not twenty times the population. The incorrectness of this assertion, I hope is now evident. For my part, I am persuaded that not with a thousand times our present population—indeed with no amount of population—and with our present means of production, could we raise twenty times our present produce. Without some gigantic invention, some machine, or other mode of increasing the productive power of labour, all the men in the universe concentrated onto this island, could not, I am satisfied, raise more than three or four times our present produce.
After what I have said, it is scarcely necessary to state, how cordially I agree in the resolution which was moved on the preceding evening, “That, etc.”
There were two objections brought against the principle, which still remain to be answered, and on which it may not be useless to add a few words more.
A gentleman affirmed on the former evening that the principle of population is unnatural: that it is contrary to nature and therefore cannot be true. What he meant by nature, and unnatural, he did not tell us: indeed he did not seem to know: nor did he offer any proof that the principle of population is unnatural. What he meant by nature I cannot tell: I will tell him what I mean by nature; I mean all the things which we see and feel: the sun, moon and stars; men and animals, trees, plants and shrubs; the earth with all its productions and these various phenomena. If all this be not nature, I should like to know what is. Now then, to what part of all this does the gentleman consider the principle of population to be contrary? Is it contrary to the sun and moon? contrary to the stars? contrary to the trees and shrubs? to the sea? to the wind? to an earthquake or a volcano? If, Sir, as is abundantly manifest, a man would make himself ridiculous by saying that the principle of population is contrary to any of these, I should like to know how that which is not contrary to any part, can be said to be contrary to the whole.
But the gentleman may reply that it is contrary to some supposed law of nature. If he can prove this, I have done. But to what law of nature is it contrary? It is a law of nature that fire burns: is it contrary to that? It is a law of nature that water freezes: is it contrary to that? No, but it is a law of nature that to every application of additional labour, the soil yields a diminishing return; and to this law of nature it is so far from being contrary, that as I have shewn, it is a necessary consequence of it.
If the word unnatural has any meaning at all, I suppose it has some indistinct reference to the will of God. And this brings me to the other objection which I promised to notice; that it is a libel on the Deity to suppose that ehee would send mouths without sending meat to put into them—that in short, the principle of population is an evil, and therefore inconsistent with the benevolence of God. One would really think, Sir, that there were no such thing as evil in the world—either physical or moral. As long as any evil exists the argument of the Honourable Gentleman is a dangerous one and may easily be carried a great deal too far. In our present state of ignorance as to the final causes of many things which we see upon the earth, the existence of any evil appears to us inconsistent with the divine benevolence. The principle of population is an evil it is true, but certainly by no means an irremediable one: and he who can reconcile the benevolence of God with the existence of war, pestilence, famine, poverty, and crime might be able, one would think, to reconcile it also with the principle of population. But if we admit, as we must do, that in the present fconditionf of our knowledge the existence of these evils under an all-wise and benevolent ruler is a mystery which we cannot explain; let us at any rate allow as much to the principle of population as we do to war, pestilence and famine and notg conclude that it does not exist, because there is a difficulty in explaining it which it only shares with all the other evils which afflict humanity.
So much for the religious objection; and with respect to the word unnatural, I should be inclined to reverse the proposition of the gentleman who made use of the word, and instead of saying that it is unnatural and therefore cannot be true, I should say that it is true and therefore cannot be unnatural.
If the gentleman says that the principle is repulsive to his feelings, I answer, that this is the first time I ever heard that feeling is the test of truth; that a proposition is true or false, according as we happen to like or dislike it, and that there can be no such things as unpleasant truths.
[1 ]Possibly Charles Austin (1799-1874), who spoke first for the Utilitarian side (CW, Vol. I, p. 127).
[2 ]Robert Owen (1771-1858), Scottish reforming mill-owner, known to James Mill and Bentham, had promulgated his comprehensive views on cooperation in a number of works: see, e.g., Report to the County of Lanark, of a Plan for Relieving Public Distress, and Removing Discontent, by Giving Permanent, Productive Employment, to the Poor and Working Classes (Glasgow: Wardlaw and Cunningham; Edinburgh: Constable, et al.; London: Longman, et al., 1821).
[3 ]The uncancelled part of the manuscript ends here; the cancelled continuation (which also breaks off) is a draft of the next paragraphs of the speech.
[4 ]E.g., Report, p. 2; and cf. A New View of Society (1813), 2nd ed. (London: Longman, et al.; Edinburgh: Constable, and Oliphant; Glasgow: Smith, and Brash, 1816), p. 175.
[b-b]L] TS have [transcriber’s error?]
[5 ]Owen, Report, pp. 23-49.
[6 ]Possibly William Thompson (1775-1833), an Irish socialist and proponent of sexual equality, who was “the principal champion” on the Owenite side of the debate (CW, Vol. I, p. 129).
[7 ]Cf. Owen, Report, pp. 25-6.
[c-c]L] TS animals;
[f-f]L] TS [a gap left, presumably because transcriber could not read word]
[g]TS [a gap left here as for an unreadable word L [no gap]]]